Alcoholism probably kept Reggie Leach out of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and he’s determined to do whatever he can to help young people avoid the downward spiral in which he became trapped.
He was one of the first big-time First Nations hockey stars. A right-winger, he helped the Philadelphia Flyers win the Stanley Cup in 1975. He scored 61 goals in 1975-76 and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after scoring 19 post-season goals. The Flyers were swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the final.
His big-league career would have lasted more than the 14 years that it did had he taken better care of himself.
“I screwed up royally,” he said Thursday from his Delaware residence. “I pretty well accomplished everything I wanted to do except I didn’t make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“If I’d been able to play a couple more years, I think I could have made it.”
Alcoholism took a toll.
He’s 57 now, and things are much different. He’s been sober since rehab in 1985.
Leach participates in clinics to teach hockey skills to aboriginal youth across Canada and to raise awareness about alcoholism education. He is among 14 winners of a National Aboriginal Achievement Award who will be honoured March 7 in Toronto.
When he speaks to kids, his message is clear.
“I talk about how important education is today and tell them about all the mistakes I made as a youngster playing hockey,” he said. “I tell them that I started drinking at a young age and I tell them what it did to my hockey career and how it affected my life and those around me.
“People might think that alcoholism just involves your own life, but it doesn’t. It involves everyone around you. I speak from the heart. I don’t hide anything.”
Leach, of the Ojibwa tribe, grew up in Riverton, Man., as a member of the Beren’s River First Nation. He was known as the Riverton Rifle for the booming shot that made him a top goal scorer.
In 934 regular-season NHL games with the Boston Bruins, California Golden Seals, the Flyers and the Detroit Red Wings, he scored 381 goals and assisted on 285. In 94 playoff games, he had 47 goals and 22 assists. He also played in the 1976 Canada Cup tournament.
There is no record of how many bottles he emptied along the way. The abuse cost him his first marriage.
“All the years that I drank, I’d quit for the wrong reasons,” he says. “My family wanted me to quit and the hockey teams wanted me to quit.
“I’d quit for three or four months at a time. The only way it works is, you have to decide it’s time to quit. It didn’t work until I made up my mind, and I finally made up my mind in 1985.”
He got his life together and is among more than 30 former players in a Flyers alumni group. On Wednesday, Leach met with Bob Clarke in downtown Philadelphia to sign sticks and pucks that will be used to help raise funds during his forays back into Canada.
“I want to get more involved with First Nations youth,” he explains. “I feel I can become a role model.
“I’d love to get a job travelling to communities talking to kids.”
He plans to sell his landscaping business and move back to Riverton. The first phase of the shift west will occur on Tuesday when he will be in Little Current on Manitoulin Island to start as an assistant coach with a junior team.
His son, Jamie, 38, is a golf pro in St. Boniface, Man., and they started a business earlier this year running hockey schools for First Nations children. Father and son will be on the ice in Goose Bay, Labrador, between Christmas and New Year’s conducting a clinic. His daughter, Brandie, 34, is a doctor in Austin, Tex.
Leach’s annual Riverton tournament is Jan. 17-19 for atoms on up to rec hockey teams, and he’ll play in an over-45 First Nations tournament in Regina in April.
He’s envious of how NHL forwards, benefiting from strict application of obstruction fouls, can now stand in front of opposition nets and not worry about being continuously cross-checked in the back or otherwise pushed around like he was.
“We used to get clobbered,” he said.
The speed of the action and the size of the players has changed, and so has Reggie Leach, who is a worthy recipient of the achievement award he’ll receive in March.
“The award is very, very special to me,” he said.